‘Grandchildren of the Empire’ is a five-part series of articles that I’ve written relating to racial discrimination in the UK, particularly regarding the aftermath of George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis and the subsequent discussion it has sparked in Britain. Feel free to take a look at the other four articles in this series and, if what’s written here has resonated with you on any level, please consider sharing this piece. Thank you.
To say that the last few weeks or so have been a rollercoaster of emotions would be the understatement of the century. Not only has the horrifying and unjust killing of George Floyd shaken the African-American community to its core, but it has opened up a much-needed discussion in the UK about the injustices facing BAME groups on our side of the Atlantic.
Though the situation in Minneapolis is specifically related to the black population, this series will be addressing racial discrimination in the UK against people of colour in general. These articles are in no way intended to diminish the effects of the #BlackLivesMatter movement by taking focus away from a singular group. Instead, their aim is to take advantage of the new discussion and offer a fresh perspective on the divides that exist between people in the UK — a task which requires us to take a look at various ethnic groups and the positions that they occupy in our society.
The first article acts as an introduction to the concept of racism in Britain, with the second focusing on discrimination against black people, the third looking at the history of British Asians, and the fourth looking specifically at British Pakistanis. The final article is a summary of these ideas and looks at ways in which we can move forward as a nation.
The British Empire
As stated, the main focus of this first article is Britain’s history with racism, and how events from the far past have left scars that linger to this day.
It’s important to first address that Britain’s history with racism is very different to that of the US. Where America has become infamous for its very known (and very violent) prejudice towards minority groups, Britain has managed to keep its systemic racism largely under wraps.
In other words, if America is currently the main antagonist being brought to its knees by the heroes of a social justice movement, Britain is the side villain carefully tip-toeing its way out of the conversation through the back door.
The British Empire is famous for being the biggest empire ever known. Although it controlled different collections of countries at different times, it has placed its feet in virtually every corner of the world. Some fan-favourite countries that used to be a part of the empire include America, Australia, Canada, and India (which, at that point, also included Pakistan and Bangladesh).
One of these countries even got a game-changing musical adaptation out of its emancipation from Britain.
The Empire is still a source of pride for many white Britons, despite modern-day reflections suggesting that it should be regarded at best as a gigantic humanitarian oversight and, at worst, as a systematic attempt to cleanse the world of its many diverse cultures and subjugate the peoples who created them.
Some individuals point to the mass infrastructure and legislation introduced by Britain to certain countries as justification for the Empire’s more controversial actions, but I doubt that many would agree that this makes up for, say, instigating the Trans-Atlantic slave trade.
Other atrocities committed in the name of the crown include the theft of land from Aborigines in Australia, severe violence in Kenya, and the partitioning of India.
The last one is the direct cause of the war between India and Pakistan over Kashmir — the second longest-running current conflict in the world (behind Israel and Palestine).
So, what relation do these events have to racism in the UK today?
Well, everything actually. As the Empire fell, and as Britain washed its hands of the colonies, innumerable people were left in economic ruin. The only choice that some of them had to survive was to send a family member, or all of their family, to the country that had oppressed them for centuries.
The way in which this immigration occurred, and the response with which it was met, has largely informed the divide felt between races in our country today.
The late twentieth century saw immigration to the UK from all parts of the commonwealth.
The ’50s saw the first significant movement of Indians to the UK, largely to work skilled jobs as doctors in the newly-formed NHS. They were followed in the ’60s and ’70s by Pakistani and Bangladeshi immigrants, who were given strenuous manual labour jobs in Britain’s failing mills.
Most of Britain’s modern black population can be traced back to the empire’s connections to both African countries and the West Indies, with migrants from these places seeking similar work to that listed above.
But, although they make up a smaller proportion than in the US, it’s important to mention that many black people in the UK today are the direct descendants of slaves. It can be hard for these people to trace their heritage since documentation of their real ancestry was not kept. Once their ancestors were bought, they were made to take the names of their owners, and their real families were lost forever.
Just looking at this short description, it can be much clearer to see how our modern-day ethnic landscape was formed. Entering an already rigid social hierarchy, migrants were funnelled to the bottom of the pyramid, becoming a staple of the UK’s working class. This has led to non-white groups being substantially poorer than Britain’s white population, since a larger proportion belong to low-income households.
To make matters worse, the stereotypes that already surrounded poverty were quickly assigned to the new arrivals. Black and brown people, like the all-white working class before them, gained a false reputation of being violent, unintelligent and immoral.
This information might be new to some people reading this article, and I wouldn’t blame anyone for not being privy to it beforehand. Very little of this recent history is covered by the Board of Education’s syllabus, which opts instead to teach us about things like the Battle of Hastings (an event that occurred almost one thousand years ago).
Before I draw this first article to a close, I’d like to make it clear to those reading that I and most BAME people don’t blame white British people today for the Empire’s brutality and subsequent negative effects. Most understand that those living in the present are not responsible for the actions of their ancestors. However, these past actions were taken by white people with the explicit intention of benefiting both themselves and their descendants, and a refusal to admit they haven’t succeeded would not only be ignorant, but dangerous.
White British people are now in a unique position to right the wrongs of those who came before them, and the first step towards righting these wrongs is acknowledging that they exist.
Every non-white person has a story about racism. Not just in America, but here in the UK as well. Some people have experienced very little of it. Others have been killed over it.
Nevertheless, there’s a point in every non-white child’s life when they grow to realise that, through no fault of their own, the world works differently for them. How differently it works will depend on their gender, accent, which particular race they are, and whether they can pass themselves off as white. But, from this singular point onwards, they are no longer just a child.
They’re a non-white child.
The aim of these articles is to prove that, through persistent effort from people of all colours, these children can one day, far into the future, live free from racial biases. I will always believe that this is possible. But, as it has been so wisely put before, those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it.
If you found this article interesting, feel free to take a look at the other four in my ‘Grandchildren of the Empire’ series. The next instalment focuses on black people and their experiences in the UK.